FOXBOROUGH — As if the record-setting numbers posted last season — teams posted an average of 23.4 points, 348.5 yards of offense, and 235.6 passing yards per game — were not enough, the NFL this offseason decided to make contact between receivers and defenders a “point of emphasis.”
Last Thursday night, there were 25 penalties thrown in the New England-Washington game, 19 of them accepted. Eight were either defensive holding or illegal contact, penalties that would come due to the renewed focus on contact.
The number of penalties slowed the game and frustrated those watching, who feared it was a glimpse of what is to come in the regular season. The length of NFL games has already increased as more and more commercial breaks have been added. More flags would bog things down more.
But referee John Parry, who was at Gillette Stadium Tuesday with three members of his officiating crew, believes the high number of flags won’t last past August.
“It’s an offensive game, and we want receivers to be able to run a free route,” Parry said. “We do not want receivers to initiate contact with defenders to eliminate their opportunity to defend that route, so it’s not an easy call. There’s not an easy call out there.
“I think we’ll see 23, 24, 20 [penalties] for [preseason] Weeks 2, 3, 4 and the message will be sent that this is a point of emphasis and players will adapt, coaches will adapt, officials will adapt, get on the same page and Week 1, I don’t think you’ll see a big difference in the football game.”
The last time the NFL made contact a point of emphasis was before the 2004 season, after Bill Belichick’s Patriots manhandled the Colts in the playoffs. Then, Belichick had found a way to slow Peyton Manning and an offensive juggernaut by having his defenders “reroute” the Colts’ receivers. It led to four Manning interceptions.
The NFL has changed rules in recent years to open up the game as much as possible — since 2009, scoring has gone up nearly 2 points per team per game, and passing yardage has jumped more than 17 yards per team per game.
Apparently, that’s still not enough, as this season’s emphasis shows.
Belichick told Parry to let the flags fly during Tuesday’s practice and explain to players why they were in the wrong. Darrelle Revis was penalized twice — after only being flagged once all last season.
If Revis was frustrated by the calls, he did not express it.
“It’s the beginning stages and the only thing we can do is ask questions and learn,’’ said Revis. “There were a lot of flags out there today, but at the same time, it’s a new rule and we’re just trying to get acclimated and do the best thing we can do by covering the receivers in the preseason games and in the regular season.”
Revis said he “can’t make a prediction” as to whether there will be more illegal contact calls than there have been in past years.
“I’m trying to learn it just as every other defensive back in the league is,” he said. “It’s something you have to do, our best job of following the rules. It’s tough, but it’s a new rule and you have to abide by the rules.”
“It helps [to have the refs here],” Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said. “It gives you some knowledge of what’s going to be called, how the game’s going to be played and, as you can see, it’s going to be a little bit of a change just with the emphasis on illegal contact and different things like that. But every year the refs come it’s always good.
“Different things they throw flags on you actually can talk to them and get an explanation . . . Today we were actually able to talk to them and kind of get a good explanation on what we can do and can’t do throughout the season.”
Parry believes that come September, the brouhaha over contact will disappear.
“In 14 years — I call them ‘clinic specials’, we can call them points of emphasis, we can call them whatever we want — but there’s generally two or three, four topics that are always at the top and we talk about them often and we officiate them aggressively during the preseason because we want a change to the game,” Parry said. “And by Week 1 of the regular season, I am sure we will all have forgotten this. Players will get into a rhythm of what we are focusing on and what we are calling, officials will get better at it — we all have to get better at it.
“I’m sure if we went back to every preseason schedule it’s 15-25 flags every game, and then we get into regular season, I think we average 13.1 or something like that. I think you’ll see that back.”
McCourty seems resigned to the fact that the league wants to see as much offense as possible.
“I think it’s just the way the league is,’’ McCourty said.
“They want to see points scored, and if it gets too crazy, if they feel like the defense is impeding too much on points being scored, then there’ll be a rule change or an emphasis on that to try to help the offense score.”Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.